It's All Fine With Me

I almost fell backwards off the ladder and onto my ass.  My involuntary yelp startled the forklift operator who reflexively reached halfway out of his cab to pull the emergency stop on the conveyor belt.  The grapes piled up accordion style, then came to a brisk halt.  Everyone was looking at me.  I had barely regained my composure before pointing mutely at an 8-inch lizard slowly creeping across our grapes.  We locked eyes - (wo) man to amphibian, each equally stupefied by the presence of the other.  Listen, I am not particularly squeamish.  I spent most of my previous life chopping up body parts in a pathology lab.  But the humungous (relatively), stowaway lizard, half paralyzed by a 5 day cold soak with our grapes, had taken me by surprise.  And suppose he’d gone through the crusher-destemmer, lizard innards coating our fresh, ripe grapes?  What then?  What’s a little lizard rillette when you’re brewing up fungus and bacteria anyway?  Surely he’d (or she’d) be racked off with the lees and sediment before bottling, Bruliam drinkers no worse for the wear.  Not so says the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)!  Federal authorities are proposing legislation that requires wineries to list potential allergens on their wine labels, somewhat akin to the ubiquitous “contains sulfites” warning.  Such legislation is rooted entirely in the use of fining agents, products used to clarify wines. Fining agents are added to wines to react with and mop up undesirable wine constituents.  Examples of those unwanted components might include brown discoloration, overpowering tannins or murky hazes.  Sometimes winemakers fine their wines proactively, so that hazes don’t form down the road in the bottle.  As you can imagine, chalky, murky wine is off-putting to consumers.  The problem is solved by mixing specific fining agents into the wine that react on contact.  The undesirable stuff (be it protein or protein-polysaccharide conglomerates) is bound up as a precipitate that can be filtered out and tossed away.  The resulting wine is alluringly sparkly and brilliantly clear.  Particular fining agents are selected specifically to gum up exactly what needs to be removed.  Protein-based fining agents are chosen to reduce the bitterness and astringency of excessive tannin polymers.  Since most proteins have a net positive charge at wine pH, they are the perfect agents to tie up unwanted tannins with H-bonds.  It all sounds pretty benign on paper until I reveal what is behind door #1…

 animal hooves, albumin, and fish swim bladders 

Let’s say it collectively and get it out of our system, “EEeeeww!”  Animal hooves and hides are the source of gelatin, raw egg whites provide albumin, and sturgeon swim bladders are the active ingredient in isinglass, a collagen protein.  (Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  The EU banned the use of ox blood years ago because of mad cow disease).  Yes it is true.  Animal derived protein products abound in the savvy enologists’ arsenal of tricks.  Other gross outs include polysaccharides mined from brown algae and insect parts (specifically the positively charged chitin derived from their exoskeleton).  You see, winemaking is a pretty ancient art, and our forefathers exploited everything in nature to achieve stability and clarity.  These fining agents predate silica beads and synthetic polymers and continue to work really well even today.  Frankly, most consumers would rather consume a hermetically sealed, perfectly formed hamburger patty from the supermarket than knowingly drink hooves and hides.

For most winemakers today, the core of this contentious debate is not whether to ban certain solvents or quit fining wine but instead how best to disclose this information to consumers.  Copious consumer education is required if “full disclosure” becomes government mandated.  A label proclaiming your wine may contain “potential allergens including but not limited to raw eggs, animal products and fish parts” is not only off putting but also overblown.   Never mind that only minute amounts, if any, of the fining agent is retained in the finished wine as a negligible residue.  It is the possibility of a theoretical allergen that drives the labeling frenzy.  Used correctly, fining agents are dosed at the smallest possible aliquot to achieve clarity and stability, with each molecule sticking to its respective partner.  And again, the fining agent+unwanted solute aggregate is removed from the wine before bottling.  An early study funded by Australia’s Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation concluded that residual allergens are indeed negligible in finished wines. 

Sometimes fining represents a last minute decision, a way to comb through and polish a wine just before bottling.  In this scenario, the wine labels would have been approved and printed far in advance of this winemaking choice.  The wines could not be bottled and re-labeled without deep financial consequences to the winery.  A blanket consumer warning on all bottles of wine represents the other extreme.    Ironically enough, warning labels would be slapped on bottles at wineries that don’t employ any fining procedures, freaking out consumers unnecessarily.  Or maybe it becomes more information overload, yet another “food warning” consumers scan without mentally processing.  In any event, the thorny labeling issue is sure to invite consumer outcry from vegans and lawyers and folks afflicted with “allergies” like headaches after they drink too much at parties. 

To be sure, life threatening food allergies are not a joke.  So perhaps a clause about eggs, fish or milk proteins is warranted.  But one must tread thoughtfully.  The Situation may crave raw egg protein shakes, but it’s a tougher sell for premium pinot noir.  Once you riff on algae and horse hooves, the romance is gone.  With potential legislation looming and Australia and New Zealand already required to disclose “allergens,” niche discussions about potential wine allergens are sure to find their way to Wikipedia soon.

To date, Bruliam has not employed fining agents in our winemaking strategy.  We are not opposed to using any natural materials that might make our wines better.  As with all of our winemaking choices, we will post our decisions here on our blog.